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Will EU enlargement facilitate a new wave of brain drain?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


With the perspective of several Eastern and South-Eastern European countries joining the European Union, questions arise what this implies for internal migration within the EU. It is the idea that EU accession would give a boost to the national economies by becoming part of the internal market. However, when millions of people are at once able to move to the more developed western countries in the Union, will this create a new brain drain from the east? If so, what is needed to prevent this from happening?


Human capital flight

Brain drain, also known as human capital flight, is the phenomenon whereby well-educated people leave their country to live and work elsewhere where they get paid better. People leave their less developed countries to have better opportunities career wise. They might not be able to fulfil their potential or the domestic labour market is not coupled with the educational system; people are educated to become something of which there is no demand. Although brain drain seems the be a negative phenomenon only, emigration leads to valuable remittances that boost the domestic economy too. Countries in the Balkan receive billions of dollars annually in the form of money sent back by family members abroad. Kosovo tops the list when is comes to remittances as share of GDP (16%), followed by Bosnia Herzegovina (11%) and Montenegro (10%).

Consequences of brain drain

Brain drain leads to loss of human capital and reduced economic growth, productivity and tax income in the sending country. In addition, it increases the disparity between countries and with that only complicates EU accession. Therefore, human capital flight has to be prevented in order to keep many countries’ hope high on an European future. Brain drain not only has consequences for possible EU accession, EU accession also impacts the phenomenon of brain drain itself. Emigration of the highly educated is triggered by social and economic imbalances and these can be negated by EU integration. Becoming part of the Union can give a boost to the domestic economy of the newly joined countries. With a stronger and more stable economy, countries would be able to keep their high-skilled workers on board to help develop the country’s economy. However, this situation is not easy to get to and EU accession on the other hand, does increase the possibility for people to move to the west of the Union where wages and conditions are better.

EU accession effects

The case of Romania shows a perfect example of what EU accession could do to the phenomenon of brain drain. More than half of Romania’s healthcare sector has left the country since 2007. This has created a huge financial loss. The education of doctors is paid by Romanian taxpayers while Western countries benefit from the educated, not Romanian people themselves. The system will not be paid back through taxes and the welfare system will receive a big hit. Romania has seen its population decreasing only further since its accession. More than a fifth of its active workforce lives abroad in other EU countries, making it the largest diaspora in Europe. On the other hand, since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, the number of emigrants has fallen because the country’s economy has been growing. It puts to show that EU accession has different effects on different countries, dependent on the local context and economy.


To prevent a surge of brain drain from happening, investment in the economy and democracy of the joining countries is needed. It has to be accepted that the economies of the western countries are stronger and the new countries would need time to effectively become part of the internal market. There are, however, measures to take in order to try and limit the drain of highly skilled workers. For example, forcing those who join the labour market to work a certain amount of years in their own country before they are allowed to work in the same sector abroad. Not only on economic terms should countries tempt their population to stay, also in the sense of democracy and governance are there steps to be taken. Good governance and transparent politics engage the people more with their own country, making them to reconsider their potential plan of leaving.

From drain to gain

We should not forget that the EU is the main beneficiary of the brain drain and therefore has the responsibility to reflect on itself and have empathy with the countries on the other side of the balance. On the short term, it should compensate the source countries for the cost they make by exporting talent. Short-term effects of brain drain are a fact and imply that it is bad for everyone. However, in the long run there is much hope. The case of Poland shows that people do not forget their home-country and after years of being known for the number of people leaving, educated Poles are now returning. And not just with money, but also with knowledge and skills acquired during their time abroad. These proof to be very valuable and boost the economy. The drain ‘reverses’ itself and becomes a gain for the whole system. So-called ‘brain circulation’ is the result in the long run, creating a beneficiary situation for everyone.


Growing disparity as a consequence of brain drain makes EU integration more difficult. At the same time, EU integration could be a solution to that growing gap, although this seems to be only the case in the long run. What could be a solution to the worrying uncertainties is promoting brain circulation instead of brain drain. EU enlargement is one way to facilitate this, as it makes migration between member countries easier and removes large thresholds. Short term effects cannot be prevented and the people that are leaving are boosters of economic development in the future. Therefore, the EU should take its responsibility regarding this phenomenon and start compensating on the short term to bridge the moment that disparity is set to increase, support the economies, and facilitate brain circulation to create a situation of prosperity for everyone.


Written by Timon Driessen